Although River Tales represents Luxembourg, it is a Spanish-language documentary that takes place in Nicaragua. Director Julie Schroell follows teacher-actor Yemn Jordan Taisigüe López as he returns to his hometown of El Castillo on the San Juan River to do his part to halt the exploitation of the El Castillo villagers by a Chinese billionaire who wants to build a canal nearby. Before getting into the film, a bit of historical background is in order.
The idea of building a canal in Nicaragua to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, via Lake Cocibolca, has a long history. For example, in 1849, the Nicaraguan government gave United States businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt the right to build such a canal, a fact that is referenced in River Tales. However, my favorite episode in this saga took place later. In 1899, the U.S. Congress began to consider approval of a canal through Nicaragua. But others wanted the inter-ocean canal to go through Panama instead. Then, in 1902 a terrible volcano eruption in Martinique killed 30,000 people. Supporters of the Panama Canal planted a fake story claiming that Momotombo, a volcano in Nicaragua, had also erupted. And they circulated a Nicaraguan stamp portraying smoke coming out of Momotombo. Congress voted for the Panama route.
Flash forward more than one hundred years and along comes Chinese billionaire (now-ex-billionaire), Wang Jing who, in 2013, wheedled a concession from Nicaragua’s corrupt dictator, Daniel Ortega, to build a canal that would uproot the citizens of El Castillo and other villages along the San Juan River.
This leads us to the film River Tales. Yemn is an anti-government activist who finds his own village threatened by this exploitation. Moving back in with his family, he gathers together local children and creates a play that teaches them (and their elders) the history of the indigenous people of the region by telling the story from the point of view of the river itself, as if it is a living character. Schroell introduces us to some of the children as they learn their roles and go through the rest of their daily lives. Adult villagers create the costumes and otherwise help out.
It would be nice to know that this story has a happy ending. The project did bog down as Wang Jing’s personal finances deteriorated, but the Ortega government, which faced a major uprising beginning in 2018, did not forget those who opposed them, and Yemn was one of the ones who was forced to temporarily flee the country.